Monday 2 May 2016

Sedgehill: the disastrous result of imposing ‘regime change’ on a community school

Friday’s final release of the Ofsted Inspection Report into Sedgehill School, labelling it ‘inadequate’ in every category, is the sad culmination of eighteen months of destructive political interference that has dealt a severe blow to what had been a thriving comprehensive school. 

Sedgehill students say what needs to be said: "Yes to Democracy - No to Academisation"

Worse, that political interference is set to continue, with the newly enacted Education & Adoption Act 2016 meaning Sedgehill will now be automatically converted into an academy, and without consultation. Once again, political dogma will take precedence over evidence; once again the school’s staff, parents and unions, those who really understand about education, will be ignored.

What has happened to Sedgehill School is, regrettably, a test-case in how not to carry out successful school improvement. The disastrous result of the failed intervention shows how the delicate balance of maintaining a comprehensive community school can quickly be upset if policies are imposed based on local and national political agendas instead of on an understanding of education.

The damage that has been inflicted on Sedgehill is one that I feel with deep personal anger, not just as a trade union representative but as a member of the local community and parent of four school students who have been so well taught and nurtured at the school. The fact that they achieved over 40 A/A* GCSEs between them should, alone, give a lie to the idea that Sedgehill was always a ‘failing’ school that required ‘intervention’. The fact that some of those responsible for the imposed damage should consistently tell me that this was just down to my children, rather than recognising that such a high level of exam achievement requires talented and dedicated teachers, also points to their failure – perhaps refusal – to appreciate the excellent work carried out by Sedgehill staff.

My children, and their classmates, weren’t only supported academically; they were also supported to grow as well-rounded individuals in a way that only a genuine community school can achieve. This sense of community meant that at the end of December 2014, when the school first came under attack by its own Local Authority, hundreds of parents and students packed into the School Hall to defend Sedgehill, including several new families who praised the school and how it contrasted so positively to the impersonal ethos in the local academies that their children had recently attended. 

Far from feeling like they were being ‘failed’, over 300 school students then demonstrated outside Lewisham Town Hall to ‘Save Sedgehill’, led by the school’s ‘Vocalize’ singing group who had just been selected by the Royal Albert Hall to sing that year’s Christmas music. Incredibly, instead of Vocalize being promoted by their Local Authority to showcase local educational success, the students had to demonstrate against that Authority. Instead of building on such an invaluable asset as community support for a school, the Authority’s actions only alienated that community.

Those demonstrations took place in response to Lewisham Council’s decision at the end of 2014 to unjustifiably serve a ‘warning notice’ on Sedgehill School and then impose an ‘Interim Executive Board’. We will never know for sure what political and/or personal agendas lay behind those decisions but what we can now say for certain is that, just as staff, parents and unions warned at the time, these impositions disastrously destabilised Sedgehill and, ultimately, led to the latest Ofsted outcome and impending academisation.

It is hard not to suspect that such personal and political agendas were at play because educational evidence never backed up the Local Authority’s public denouncement of Sedgehill, criticism which of course started a downward spiral of demoralisation, destabilisation and staff resignations. As I explained in detail on my blog at the time, Sedgehill was actually one of only two Lewisham secondary schools which had consistently improved its GCSE 5A*CEM results from 2010 - 13 and was the only Lewisham secondary school to show improved results for A*-C grades at A level in 2014.

The excuse used for intervention was that, despite this improvement, the 2014 GCSE results had then fallen – but then so had results in the majority of Lewisham secondary schools following controversial national changes that had also led to a fall in results nationally! However, and confirming the genuine improvements which were being made before Lewisham’s interference, the 2015 results showed GCSE 5A*CEM results at Sedgehill improving again, at the same time as results in several other Lewisham schools continued to fall. Regrettably, it seems that Sedgehill – and its staff and students - will be the school that pays the price for Lewisham Local Authority’s failure to provide support for genuine school improvement – and will be forced by Government policy into another route that statistics also show fails to improve schools – forced academisation.

Of course, Sedgehill’s overall ‘league table’ position remains lower than some, but that is inevitable given that Lewisham’s latest ‘banding’ data confirmed that Sedgehill has also been the secondary school with a pupil intake most skewed to ‘lower-ability bands’. Unfortunately, Sedgehill’s ability to succeed, despite such an imbalance, was about to be thrown away. Instead, a new leadership was imposed that has regrettably demonstrated an inability to maintain that careful balance of support required in a school with a far from genuinely ‘comprehensive’ South London pupil population. 

Does that mean that the previous leadership was perfect and the school was doing everything correctly? – of course not. As Lewisham NUT Secretary at the time, then, as you would expect, I would attend school union meetings where teachers would raise concerns about management, workload and so on, concerns that I could then raise constructively with the school leadership. The Governors and Headteacher were, however, people who understood their school community and, working in partnership with another experienced local Headteacher, were trying to correct deficiencies previously identified in the 2013 Ofsted inspection which had concluded that the school ‘requires improvement’. Instead of building on that genuine school improvement – demonstrated by the 2015 GCSE results - with support, encouragement and resources, the imposition of that IEB broke that partnership, removed the Governing Body and quickly began the downward spiral that has led instead to an ‘inadequate’ grading.

Sadly, the Local Authority seems either blind to their own errors, or simply unwilling to admit to their mistakes. In response to the Ofsted Report, a Lewisham spokeswoman is quoted in the South London Press as saying: “Last year we intervened decisively by appointing an Interim Executive Board (IEB) to bring about rapid improvement. We remain confident that this was the right decision and the good work they have done so far in taking swift action to bring in a new leadership team and in stabilising the school has been acknowledged by Ofsted in their report”.

It is beyond belief that the Local Authority and Ofsted can claim that Lewisham’s actions have ‘stabilised’ the school. The reality is that those actions have ripped apart the school community and critically damaged its effectiveness. So much so, that some staff are suspicious that the policies adopted have been deliberately designed to bring about failure and academisation. That is not a view that I share, although perhaps it’s even more worrying that the Authority, IEB and imposed school management cannot recognise the damage that has been done under their leadership.

Of course, there will be suspicions that Ofsted are playing their part in a political agenda to impose academisation in Lewisham, particularly after the successful and well-publicised campaigns that have been conducted by parents and staff under the banner of ‘Stop Academies in Lewisham’.

The Ofsted Report is certainly overwhelmingly negative in its findings, despite having to acknowledge that “the 2015 GCSE results showed improvement ... the proportion of pupils obtaining five or more good GCSE grades, including English and mathematics, was in line with the national average”. It also confirms the skewed intake of the school, including that “the proportion of pupils known to be eligible for the pupil premium is well above average”. However, and as NUT members and other staff have been consistently trying to raise with the new ‘CEO’ who replaced the previous Headteacher last academic year, I regrettably believe that Ofsted had good reason to raise concerns about safeguarding and, in particular, pupil behaviour.

These failings are a direct consequence of forcing out a school leadership that had experience of the complexities of leading a diverse London school and replacing them with a team that NUT members complain show little understanding or experience of what is required. It is also a consequence of an attitude that I personally experienced in meetings with the CEO, IEB and Local Authority officers that seemed to regard long-standing staff as malign ‘enemies of promise’ rather than a pool of valuable experience to work with and learn from. It is an attitude that has led to staff demoralisation and resignations, adding to the instability which Lewisham’s actions had already thrust on the school.

In throwing out the procedures put in place under the previous management and Governing Body, NUT members report that the new regime failed to put in place their own clear procedures for developing teaching and learning, behaviour management and safeguarding. Staff have been left without the support and guidance they need, particularly new colleagues replacing those who had resigned. Regrettably, with the threat of academisation, there may be more resignations to follow.

Lewisham Local Authority’s actions have been nothing short of calamitous. It was their decision to publicly attack the school, destabilising and alienating the school community, then to force out experienced staff and replace them with an IEB and Leadership Team that have, in the view of most NUT members, compounded the difficulties facing Sedgehill students, staff and parents. The Local Authority needs to admit its mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. 

"Sedgehill did not fail us" say students outside Lewisham Town Hall, December 2014

Regrettably, this failure will no doubt be seized upon by some in Government as evidence in favour of academisation - far from it. These failings result from an authoritarian, ill-informed approach which exactly mirrors Government policy – ignoring the evidence, imposing pre-conceived agendas and ignoring the voices of the school community. Forced academisation, regrettably seemingly inevitable under the new Government legislation, will only continue on the same damaging route.

As the NUT and others have shown, there is no evidence that forced academisation will improve education. In fact, by concentrating on the wrong priorities, it will make things worse. It won’t deliver on what’s really required – more resources to provide additional staff to meet needs, a leadership that can work collaboratively with staff to raise morale, encourage recruitment and retention and apply systems that address existing weaknesses, and a community-based Governing Body. However, what events at Sedgehill also show is that it’s not just enough to oppose academisation. Staff, parents and unions also need to campaign for democratically accountable schools and Local Authorities that work with their local community and workforce, not against them.

Postcript - for an explanation as to why my son has already left Sedgehill - and the role of edu-businesses in profiting from Government policy - see my later post here.


Unknown said...

Very well said, how anyone can say the report shows the IEB and new leadership team have done a good job is in cloud cuckoo land!

Anonymous said...

You make no mention of the £1.2 million deficit that was found. That surely was the responsibility of the previous leadership.

Martin said...

No, I haven't mentioned your claim about the deficit as the budget is a separate issue (that has largely impacted on support staff as far as I understand) and one that I don't have the detail to comment upon. If you are reading this post as being about uncritically praising one leadership in preference to another, then you are missing the point entirely.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the new leadership have been at the school a relatively short time if I read your piece correctly. It's interesting to note that the government will now allow 30 months to new leaders in challenging schools before an inspection. It' is perhaps a shame that Sedgehill was not afforded this. As I see it, Ofsted has done little to stabilise a school community and it may be that you are correct in assuming a
Political agenda in terms of academisation.

Martin said...

Ofsted are not interested in stabilising schools - and nor are a Government set on forced academisation. However, it's a bit rich for Lewisham Council to be complaining now about the need for schools to have 'time to improve' when it was their decision to rush to impose a warning notice that triggered this chain of damaging events. It's not as if they weren't warned of the consequences. Sadly, there's still no sign of anyone at Lewisham admitting they got it so badly wrong - at the expense of our children.